St. Louis wants to expand convention center after losing NFL, because that worked so well the last time

Coming off the loss of the Rams, St. Louis’ leaders have come up with a can’t fail strategy for boosting the city and its fortunes: Spend hundreds of millions to improve the convention center and domed stadium complex abandoned by the Rams to better compete in the national convention market. Kitty Ratcliffe, head of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, owner of the center and dome, recently proclaimed, “Our competitors are building, while we’ve been doing nothing.” The chief of staff for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay weighed in with “We’re looking at this as a boost for the region’s tourism industry.” And they promised a consultant study “in the next few weeks” that would document the needs and set out a price tag.

Here they go again. Thirty years ago, faced with the loss of the NFL Cardinals, then-Mayor Vince Schoemehl and the region’s business leaders promoted a combined convention center expansion and domed stadium as the cure for the city’s ills. The argument by mayoral staffers was that “the City cannot feel like a ‘winner’ if it’s constantly losing things.” The city’s then budget director argued that a combined dome/convention center would be “an exciting world-class building project. We don’t often get this type of opportunity to make an international impact, like the Astrodome.”

Armed with consultant studies that promised a big boost in convention activity from what was supposed to be the country’s fourth biggest convention center, the city, county and state governments plopped down $240 million for a dome that still didn’t have a football tenant. More consultant studies said that what St. Louis really needed was a 1,000-room hotel next door to the new America’s Center complex. The head of the Convention and Visitors Commission in 1999 forecast that a new hotel would boost major conventions from 33 in 1998 to 56 in 2004, with hotel room nights almost doubling, to 800,000 a year. Mayor Clarence Harmon pressed the case for state aid for the hotel as “the foundation of our efforts to revitalize downtown and its is a cornerstone of our overall economic development strategy in the City of St. Louis.”

The new $277 million, 1,081-room Renaissance Grand Hotel opened in 2003 and immediately floundered, with occupancy and rates well below consultant forecasts. Beyond the problem of opening in the wake of 9/11, the hotel never spurred the predicted convention boom. By 2006, there weren’t 54 major conventions, but just 32. And the total continued to sink, so that 2008 saw just 438,000 convention room nights, a bit less than the 800,000 promised. With no new convention business, the hotel proved a total dud, and bondholders foreclosed on it in 2009, finally selling it for a third of debt. The story of the city’s convention business is still the same — 26 major conventions in 2014 and 425,411 room nights in 2014, almost exactly the same as the figures for 1997 and 1998.

Now, lest the city once again be viewed as a “loser,” with more promises of a “boost” for tourism, state and local officials seem poised to throw away more public money.

 

 


11 comments on “St. Louis wants to expand convention center after losing NFL, because that worked so well the last time

  1. “The new $277 million, 1,081-room Renaissance Grand Hotel opened in 2003 and immediately floundered, with occupancy and rates well below consultant forecasts. Beyond the problem of opening in the wake of 9/11, the hotel never spurred the predicted convention boom. By 2006, there weren’t 54 major conventions, but just 32. And the total continued to sink, so that 2008 saw just 438,000 convention room nights, a bit less than the 800,000 promised. With no new convention business, the hotel proved a total dud, and bondholders foreclosed on it in 2009, finally selling it for a third of debt. The story of the city’s convention business is still the same — 26 major conventions in 2014 and 425,411 room nights in 2014, almost exactly the same as the figures for 1997 and 1998.”

    That’s simply because they didn’t spend enough money the first time.

    This time will be different. They promise.

  2. Maybe St Louis officiales should commit to spending some of that stadium welfare on increased policing/law enforcement and related public safety initiatives.

    Maybe tourism and convention business would improve if the odds of getting killed or robbed while in St Louis could be improved in favor of said tourists and conventioneers.

    Crazy, I know.

  3. I would much rather go to Las Vegas for a convention, pay the daily $40 resort fees, and almost get run over by a runaway car on the strip sidewalk. I’ll go see a $250 show. Lose $20 bucks at the slots. Get some $1000 bottle service. Then max out my credit card getting a private dance at a strip club. Then I will come back home and file for bankruptcy. Vegas baby, clear and simple!!!

  4. @Jake Y – The problem with Vegas is two fold 1) more people live on the East Coast and 2) for a lot of conventions it seems unseemly in a way Indianapolis or Baltimore does not.

    St Louis’s biggest issue is that the competition for conventions in Midwest is kind of fierce and already overbuilt so just expanding space doesn’t help unless you’re willing to rent the space out for nothing.

  5. If being a major airline hub is a factor in getting large conventions, St Louis is no longer competitive, since TWA is gone and no new hubs are being created.

  6. I read this article and immediately grew sad. The portrayal of St. Louis officials here reminds me of those from Flint, Michigan interviewed by Michael Moore in his famous 1989 film “Roger and Me”. They wasted their city’s time and resources on trying to build a convention business while the city’s economy was cratering around them. I truly believe this is malpractice by government officials and St. Louis voters shouldn’t quietly go along with this.

  7. @JMauro – Have you been to Baltimore lately? Boarded up storefronts all over downtown. I wouldn’t walk two blocks in that town. I might get shot! The problem with Indianapolis is the taxes on tourists are really really high. Look at your room tax sometime in Indianapolis. Car Rental taxes have been increased lately to help pay for the new dome downtown. Downtown Indianapolis is a really high tax district.

  8. Better yet let’s throw some TIF money at Kroenke, et al to build something or other just outside of town. Hard to believe not a month ago the same lawyer prepared the application that beluttled the region. Now Kroenke wants money for ‘a vast retail, entertainment, office, residential, and sports district.’ Whatever that means.

    Knowing the region, they’ll probably bend over and beg for more.

    http://m.stltoday.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/article_1fcb9a78-ebf8-5671-bc42-96fe5f642092.html?mobile_touch=true

  9. The convention business in the midwest is fierce, and trying to take on Minneapolis and Chicago, both major airline hubs, is not exactly a wise bet. I understand in many situations city leaders have little control over the larger economic forces that align against them, but I suspect having a more competently run city and public services would probably be a lot more helpful.

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